Protect What's Next

By Molly Katz
Agency: Cactus
Client: Colorado Department of Public Health and Enviornment
Category: 2015

I'm going to argue that creating a successful teen drug prevention campaign is one of the most challenging asks ever. Especially, when it comes to preventing teens from using marijuana. After all, marijuana isn't scary - it's definitely not meth or heroin. That's where planning came in. It was my job to figure out what message teens would listen to, and maybe even share. Like I said, a tall order.

THE SITUATION / With marijuana legalization comes great responsibility. That’s what the state of Colorado realized on January 1, 2014, when it officially became legal for any adult 21+ to buy, possess and consume marijuana within our state borders. And one of the greatest responsibilities was to Coloradan teens, ages 12-20.

THE CHALLENGE / Many voters, politicians, and parents argued that marijuana legalization could pose a great threat to those under the age of 21. Some of the biggest questions, “Would teen marijuana use spike after legalization - and potentially lead to an increase in use of other drugs,” and “How does the state of Colorado prevent teens from using marijuana?”

On top of these questions, teens across Colorado agreed that using marijuana is not seen as risky behavior. In fact, 100% of the 12-20 year old’s interviewed said that no one waits until they are 21 to smoke. So, how do we create a campaign for the state of Colorado that resonates on an emotional level - and in the end, deters use?

THE RESEARCH / UNDERSTANDING YOUTH Let’s face it, we don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager today. Their lives are more than taking #selfies and listening to Taylor Swift. So, in order to understand what it’s like to be in middle school, high school, or college, I spent nearly 6 months interviewing hundreds of teenagers. I went to their classes, followed them on Snapchat, read their journals, and met their friends. If they smoked weed, I found out why. If they didn’t smoke weed, I found out why not. I convinced them to open up to me, sometimes in front of their peers - about drug use and their home life. Surprisingly, many teens were forthcoming. They told me about their relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. They told me about the things in life that stress them out the most, and the things in life that make them feel accomplished. Most importantly, they told me about what it means to be happy, and their goals today, and in the next five years.

THE INSIGHTS / DISTRUST IN PUBLIC HEALTH STATEMENTS Many teens have heard about the negative health effects of underage marijuana use. Nevertheless, a significant number of teens do not believe there is conclusive evidence to support these claims and said they’d question such a public health statement presented as fact. For example, the public health statement stating “may or can” vs. “will”, “drugs like marijuana can negatively impact your growing and developing brain,” was seen by teens as propaganda.

IT’S NOT JUST WHAT WE SAY, IT’S HOW WE SAY IT Teens rejected any language that was preachy or presented as a scare tactic and were quick to judge content laced with “someone’s biased point of view.”

THE #1 DETERRENT By far the most important insight from the research was that teens (across age groups) said that the most compelling reason not to use marijuana was because it could get in the way of achieving their goals.

I walked away from the research knowing exactly what our creative team and prevention campaign had to do - talk to teens about their goals and ambitions.

THE KEY MESSAGE / Don't let getting high get in your way.

THE WORK / Armed with these insights, Cactus developed and tested three creative concept directions resulting in a clear winning concept called "What's Next". This campaign reminds teens of their goals, and reinforces their reasons not to use marijuana by helping them prioritize their personal ambitions and passions.

The main objective of “What’s Next” is to create a culture of non-use by helping teens realize their goals and dreams are easier to achieve without marijuana. One of the best ways to connect with teens is to empower them to make healthy decisions on their own. We learned that teens want to be informed and in control of their health decisions, which meant our messaging could not be preachy, overbearing, or a scare tactic. “What’s Next” takes a direct approach by talking to teens (not at them) about the tangible goals and life milestones that are right on the horizon.

THE RESULTS / To be completely honest, the results aren’t completely in. The campaign launched on August 16th, so at this point I can’t really say if it has changed behavior amongst teens. I can tell you that in the first three weeks we received 7,000+ unique visits to the site, 2.1M video views, and an 2,679 likes on Facebook with 223 shares. These stats may seem small, but for a marijuana prevention campaign - we’re pretty proud.